A few years ago, one of our elders here at LifePoint encouraged me to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Although I have a great love for history, and had obviously heard of the novel and its impact on America in the mid 1800’s, I had never troubled myself to read it. I took up the challenge and did so, and am much better off for the effort.
When President Lincoln met Mrs. Stowe in 1863, it is reported that he said to her, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!” It was a bit of an overstatement, and it was meant in good humor, for Lincoln was a great fan both of Stowe and the novel. Nevertheless, Uncle Tom’s Cabin had a massive impact on both American culture and the psyche of the American people, both North and South.
Harriet was the seventh of thirteen children born to Lyman Beecher, a Congregationalist minister and an ardent abolitionist. All seven of her brothers followed her father’s footsteps into ministry, becoming preachers themselves. She loved to write, and in 1832, after moving with her father to the “frontier” city of Cincinnati, she married Calvin Stowe, a seminary professor. Harriet and Prof. Stowe eventually moved to Brunswick, Maine so that he could teach at Bowdoin College. Not long after her marriage, Harriet published two short books, Primary Geography for Children and a collection of short stories entitled New England Sketches. She was also a contributor to newspapers supporting temperance and abolitionism, writing “sketches,” brief descriptive stories meant to illustrate a political point. In 1850 Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, obligating authorities in free states to re-enslave black refugees. This action roused Harriet to speak more boldly about her abolitionist ideals and led to one of the most influential novels ever written.
Harriet had spoken to many fugitive slaves and free blacks during her days in Cincinnati. She had lived for eighteen years across the Ohio river from a slave-holding community in Kentucky, and had many friends involved in the “Underground Railroad” there. Now she scoured the available written accounts of fugitive slaves and spoke with her own black abolitionist friends who had been born free but had contacts among recently escaped southern slaves. All this she used as fodder for her emerging novel. Eventually, she was ready to publish, and did so as a serial publication in the National Era, an antislavery newspaper in Washington, D.C. It hit the newsstands in 1851 and 1852 in 40 installments, each with its own cliffhanger ending. She was hated in the South, but revered in the North. The book version was finally released in March of 1852, selling 10,000 copies the very first week, and 300,000 by the end of the year. It was an even bigger hit in Great Britain, where 1.5 million copies were sold the first year of publication. Harriet had become a publishing phenom almost overnight, and many Americans and Europeans who had only faint and unrealistic views of the evils of chattel slavery had their eyes opened, and their hearts pricked.
I cannot recommend this novel to you more highly. I feel silly for having waited until my late-forties to read it. It is an American classic and a masterpiece. It is undoubtedly a somewhat romanticized view of slave life in the American South, but it retains much of the pain, abuse, and misery that accompanied that “peculiar institution.” I would recommend that after reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, you consider reading the memoir of Solomon Northup entitled 12 Years a Slave for another view of slavery. Northup was born a free negro in New York. He was a much sought-after carpenter and a musician before he was kidnapped by slave traders while on a business trip to Washington, D.C. He was transported south to Louisiana, and there spent twelve years enslaved by brutal mill and plantation owners before his family was able to ascertain his whereabouts and petition the state for his release. It is a real-world look at the heartbreaking and ungodly world of slavery and human deprivation. Although both books have their depressing moments, they are also laced with hope and Christian virtue.
Both Harriet Stowe and Solomon Northup were Christ-followers. Their books are riddled with biblical references and viewpoints. Reading them has helped me value both human life and biblical truth more heartily. Christianity is often attacked by its opponents as endorsing slavery and bigotry. This is, of course, an unmitigated falsehood. Only a half-wit could read the New Testament and come away with a view supporting the enslavement of human beings based on their race as a godly virtue. We should quickly disavow any and all forms of racism, bigotry, and xenophobia, as the Scriptures teach us to do. “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Gal. 6:10).
Grace and peace,